ISPR’s tweet and Pakistani democracy | Marvi Sarmad


A controversial tweet by the director general of ISPR, Army’s media wing, on Saturday sparked a heated reaction from civil society and sections of media. The infamous tweet had come minutes after the Prime Minister’s Office issued an executive order seeking necessary action based on findings of the Dawn Leaks inquiry.

Political sources have claimed that the order covered the inquiry report’s paragraph 18, which reportedly carries everything agreed upon between the two sides, but it was still not up to the Army’s satisfaction. Since the order was made public, or ‘leaked’ to media, before the relevant authorities including the Army could set eyes on it, the reactions were also given publicly. This is how some ‘defence analysts’ — euphemism for media proxies of security establishment — have explained the situation.

Civilian supremacy or civil-military balance is not an easy thing to maintain anywhere in the world. It is a doubly difficult process in post-colonial states with struggling democracies.

The task of creating a workable balance that doesn’t encumber the democratic dispensation gets compounded amid competing positions over national security issues. The challenge is tougher in Pakistan where the military establishment has enjoyed unbridled power over national security discourse – which has been extended to cover everything that challenges Army’s worldview.

To our relief, since 2008 civilian governments have not been deposed in the dead of the night and electoral exercise has been allowed to continue every five years. Though, what happens between elections remains a function of how ‘well-behaved’ a government proves to be.

Military establishment’s paranoia with controlling national security discourse makes it highly sceptical of even the meekest of attempts by civilians to seek ownership of policy formulation process. In 1990s, late Benazir Bhutto was declared a security threat to the country for trying to do so. Almost 20 years later, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, once trusted ally of the establishment, finds himself in the same position. Sections of media have declared him an agent of the enemy state more than once. The recent instance was just a day before the Army chose to publicly defy the authority of the federal government — when an Indian business tycoon Sajjan Jindal visited to see the PM.

The issue of outrageous accusations levelled against a democratically elected prime minister wasn’t, surprisingly, seen as that concerning national security. But, the debate over former army chief’s high-profile job to lead a sectarian military alliance immediately after his retirement was suppressed, labelling it not only as an attempt to jeopardise Pakistan’s relations with a ‘generous friendly state’ but also as a deliberate attempt to malign the armed forces. The impression one gets is that the perceived maligning of one side is propagated as a threat to national interest, but outrageous accusations against the sitting PM are considered absolutely kosher.

These double standards with which both sides are treated clearly reeks of the rottenness of arguments over national security concerns. But if maligning symbols of Pakistan’s sovereignty is akin to breach of national security, it was breached when the PM was called a traitor in the media or when the PMO was humiliated through the ISPR tweet. As things stand, national security argument is applied selectively and it serves narrow and selfish interests of those wielding real power. And real power rests with those who cannot be criticised publicly. Those who dare do so run the risk of going missing.

Against this backdrop, seeking a civil-military balance in Pakistan remains an onerous art few can dabble with finesse. Both sides have repeatedly demonstrated sheer lack of their knack to try out the path.

The foremost challenge in establishing civilian supremacy is to make the military establishment politically neutral. For this to happen, military has to accept that it has to work with the political forces, instead of trying to engineer the democratic system.

In modern democracies, civilian efforts to gain absolute supremacy over military affairs often end up provoking military defiance, especially in the absence of supportive public opinion. In such an event, the military is lionised rather than cowed down, shrinking the space for civilians.

Thus, the PM’s hosting of Sajjan Jindal without properly communicating details about his visit to the gun wielders and making public an executive order without first internally sharing it among parties concerned has landed Pakistan into a situation where it has become a laughing stock for the world. Expecting the military to automatically and dutifully yield to absolute civilian supremacy maybe a rightful position but it is not sagacious.

That the genie is out of the bottle, what next? Admittedly, the PM is in a tight spot. He is facing a defiant and unforgiving Army that won’t be appeased through cosmetics of the kind attempted by the recent executive order.

If he doesn’t take punitive action, he will be perceived as a weak Prime Minister. Whatever the course of action the PM chooses, he should remember that survival will shape the future course of democracy. Waving a red cloth would not only be suicidal but would push Pakistan’s democracy at least a decade behind. History, as they say, is always written by survivors.